Many of us wear multitasking like a badge of honor – switching between several tasks and non-tasks during our day, eating while we type, typing while we talk to someone. We learned it all from the Cat in the Hat when we were just wee tykes:
I can hold up the cup
And the milk and the cake!
I can hold up these books!
And the fish on the rake!
I can hold the toy ship
And a little toy man!
And look! With my tail
I can hold a red fan!
I can fan with the fan
As I hop on the ball!
But that is not all.
That is not all.
Well, we all know how that ended. Despite our perceived dexterity at switching between tasks all day long, multitasking may be detrimental to our productivity and the quality of our work. Add to that the cost of multiple interruptions in your day from external sources and you often end up getting less done and feeling more stressed.
Psychology research has shown that there are important costs associated with switching between tasks both in terms of the quality of the work as well as the amount of work produced. Multitasking doesn’t give your brain the time it needs to switch gears and fully focus on the new task at hand, creating what is known as attention residue.
So, if this is all so very bad for us, why do we do it so much? The short answer is because we can. Before the internet, if you wanted to find information on a topic you had to call someone, go somewhere, or troll through the paper card catalog at the library. If you were working on a task, you did not stop in the middle of it, get your coat and drive to the library to look something up. Online shopping didn’t exist. There was no email.
When the world wide web made its debut, all the information that you could ever want was on your desktop. It was feasible, and even a little exhilarating, to just look up the answer to something on a search engine. Fast forward to 2007 and the advent of smartphones and you have your tipping point. You no longer need to be at your desk, -– you can find any information at any time wherever you are with a little finger dexterity. You can pay your bills on your phone, check your calendar, read the news, order dinner, wake up and go to sleep, set reminders, make your grocery list or just order groceries all together, buy almost anything, and calculate your every step.
Mobile phone and text capability increase the potential distractions for you wherever you are. You don’t have to be tethered to a land line phone, or even any phone at all, to be reached or to reach someone. There is even GPS, so that you can be tracked in real time. Your devices are constantly buzzing and pinging at you. Wow – no wonder we can’t find a moment to ourselves to just think.
The good news is that there is a better way, and it is achievable. Monotasking or single tasking – working on just one thing at a time for a set period of time. By getting back to the basics, you can increase your concentration and get more done. Cal Newport, Computer Science Professor at Georgetown University, has described this as deep work – – working on one thing for a significant chunk of time – no multitasking allowed.
Now if you are thinking that you would LOVE to work on only one thing at a time if only you could, think again. While we are often distracted and interrupted by others at work, we also do a fair share of our own self-interruption. Stopping what you are doing to check email, surf the internet, or suddenly remembering something and switching gears in mid-task are ways that we all interrupt ourselves. You don’t have to monotask your entire day, but the more you can incorporate it into your day, the better you will feel and the more you will get done.
Stop interrupting yourself
It’s bad enough when that chatty colleague shows up at your door just when you are on a roll with your writing, or a family member interrupts you because they can’t seem to find anything without your assistance. You don’t need to add to that by interrupting yourself when you are writing or working intently on a specific task. Keep a pad of paper nearby, and when you get the urge to surf the internet, buy something online, or do anything else, write it down to do later. Pretend you live in 1983.
Don’t check email when you are on task
If you have an email client that pings at you every time you get an email or that has a pop-up window that gives you a little teaser about what that email is about, turn it off. Find that darn little function in the settings and shut it down. People do not email you with emergencies. You don’t need to know the second a new message arrives in your inbox.
Use the Do Not Disturb function on your phone
If you have an iPhone there is a little known function in the settings that is Do Not Disturb. I’m sure it also exists somewhere on android phones. This miracle of technology will silence all incoming calls and texts for any amount of time. Worried that someone might need to reach you urgently, such as your child’s school or your spouse? You can set up an override for specific people and phone numbers.
Send your calls to voicemail on your office or home phone
You don’t have to answer the landline either. Sending all your calls to voicemail is the old-fashioned way to reduce disturbances, but still give callers the opportunity to leave you a message.
Work in batch mode
Try to group separate but similar tasks together. Research has shown that the switching costs between similar tasks is lower than between disparate tasks. Process your email in batches at pre-specified times of the day. Make all your phone calls at one time. Knock off all of those quick action items in one sitting.
Find somewhere else to work
You can’t be interrupted by others if you are not around others. Take your laptop to the library, a cafe or work from home. Research has shown that it takes approximately 25 minutes to get back on task after you have been interrupted by someone – 25 minutes! The more subordinate the interruption – the lower the switching cost. For example, if someone is just asking you for a signature, it may not take much at all to get back to the task at hand. But if someone stops in your office while you are working and engages you in a conversation not related to something that you are currently focusing on, it will take significantly more time for you to refocus back on what you were doing. If this happens enough, you will also start to feel frustrated and quite frankly just a little cranky. You end up feeling like you have been busy, busy, busy, but have not accomplished anything. You don’t want to disappear all the time because someone will file a missing persons report on you. But if you can fit in a few sessions here and there, your brain will thank you for the uninterrupted space.
Remember what happened to the Cat in the Hat. You can get along with multitasking, but it will never be your BFF. Try to incorporate a little one-task focus in your day where you can and see what a difference it can make.